Michigan Starts Finding Answers on Opening Weekend

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 14th, 2016

When Michigan was again forced to adjust to life without star shooting guard Caris LeVert — whose college career ended after suffering a season-ending leg injury last December — it posed two silver linings. On the one hand, it was a blessing in disguise. The Wolverines still snuck into the NCAA Tournament, and the increased workload for guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin gave the experienced duo more to build on entering 2016-17. LeVert’s exit, however, also marked the first in a series of unforeseen departures which have created more questions than answers entering this season, even with the team’s starting five fully intact. If its opening weekend victory over IUPUI is any indication, Michigan’s questions will take some time to fully answer—but the blueprint for progress is there.

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

Emerging Frontcourt Depth

The Wolverines’ chief concern is depth, and not just because LeVert is gone. 2013 Final Four hero Spike Albrecht briefly retired last December because of a hip injury before eventually heading to Purdue. In April, guard Aubrey Dawkins (6.5 PPG) transferred to Central Florida to play for his father. A month later, frontcourt role players Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman—whose clutch triple against Indiana last March helped Michigan reach the Dance—also departed. The spate of transfers has left John Beilein with a short and inexperienced bench; on Sunday, only seven players saw meaningful minutes. The good news? One of those players, forward D.J. Wilson, looked like a breakout star. After barely seeing the floor last season, the springy sophomore scored seven points and ripped down 14 rebounds in a career-high 30 minutes against the Jaguars, providing a much needed spark off the bench. Read the rest of this entry »

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Will Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Lead Michigan Back?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 8th, 2016

With the final member of the Fresh Five, Caris Levert, now gone from Ann Arbor, the burden shifts to seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton to lead the Wolverines back to the top of the Big Ten. Since the 2012-13 season, there has been at least one Fresh Five player ready to position Michigan as a Big Ten contender. Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht sparked a run to the National Title game in 2013 before handing the baton to Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who then left the program for Levert the last two seasons. Irvin and Walton were supposed to be next in line to support his charge but their performances, regardless of Levert’s injuries, haven’t lived up to expectations. A mediocre 16-16 season was followed by a decent 23-13 campaign last year, but the Wolverines haven’t been in serious contention among the Big Ten elite since 2014. As Irvin and Walton enter their senior campaigns, the overriding question is whether the duo can lead Michigan back to prominence.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to bring Michigan back into the Big Ten Elite.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to push Michigan back into the Big Ten elite. (AP)

While Irvin’s strength is in his long-range jumper, he shot a terrible 29 percent from beyond the arc last year. Despite his quick release off the dribble, Big Ten opponents have figured out that he regularly looks to go right for a pull-up at the top of the key. His other primary scoring option is to run pick-and-roll action with Walton for a corner three off the pick-and-roll. Two years ago, Levert’s dribble-drive penetration freed Irvin in the corners but Walton hasn’t been as successful in creating those same opportunities. As a result, Irvin experienced a big dip in offensive production — from 14.8 PPG during his sophomore season to 11.3 PPG last year. Unless Irvin has spent the summer really improving his game off the dribble, he could continue to struggle in finding his spots on that end of the floor. Unlike Burke, who had the gifted offensive services of Mitch McGary and Robinson available, Walton has not had an effective pick-and-roll partner over the last two seasons. Sure, Mark Donnal can set good picks but he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to make a play when the ball comes his way. Duncan Robinson simply hasn’t proven that he is strong enough to execute the pick-and-roll either. Defenders tend to therefore stick with Walton, which is a good strategic bet.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: Purdue 76, Michigan 59

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Three Key Takeaways

The Boilermakers will play for a B1G title on Sunday. (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

The Boilermakers will play for a B1G title on Sunday. (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

  1. Purdue’s game plan was simple – and it worked. The Boilermakers boast one of the tallest and deepest frontlines in the country, with two players – AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas – standing more than seven-feet tall, and another, Caleb Swanigan, checking in at 6’9”, 250 pounds. Against the much smaller Wolverines, Purdue pounded the ball inside early, often, and to great effect. All told, Hammons, Haas and Swanigan combined for 45 points and 21 rebounds, including a dominant 27-point, 11-rebound effort from Hammons. No matter which team(s) Purdue draws in next week’s NCAA Tournament, they will be hard-pressed to stop the Boilmakers’ dominant big men – especially when Hammons plays like he did on Saturday.
  2. The three-ball betrayed Michigan. The Wolverines found their fair share of good looks, too, but for a team that relies so heavily on three-pointers – Michigan generates nearly 40 percent of its points from behind the arc – not nearly enough of them fell through the cylinder on Saturday. John Beilein’s team shot just 6-for-25 from long distance, including 1-5 from the usually-automatic Duncan Robinson. Had they been able to slow down Purdue in the paint like they did in their 5-point victory over the Boilermakers in February, the Wolverines may have been able to overcome the poor shooting performance. But their lack of answers on the other end culminated in a 17-point defeat.
  3. It’s tough to win three games in three days. Robinson and top scorer Zak Irvin came up short on numerous shots against Purdue, something we might normally chalk up to a “bad game”. But considering the circumstances on Saturday, the pattern was hard to ignore. After expending a great deal of physical and emotional energy in its dramatic victories over Northwestern and Indiana on Thursday and Friday, Michigan could not replicate its same desperate, high-level of play against the Boilermakers. Fatigue truly matters in these tournaments, especially for teams that must win four or five straight games in order to claim the title.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Afternoon

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2016

The Big Ten Tournament’s afternoon session on Friday yielded two starkly different outcomes. In the opener, Michigan upset top-seeded Indiana in dramatic fashion, knocking down a three-pointer just before the buzzer to preserve its NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. The second game was far less dramatic, but perhaps a louder statement – Purdue throttled #12 seed Illinois, 89-58, in one of the more dominant quarterfinal matchups you will ever see. Here are four takeaways from this afternoon’s games.

Michigan reserve Kameron Chatman preserved the Wolverine's NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Kameron Chatman preserved Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday. (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Indiana: Despite the massive, swarming fan base that filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse like a sea of crimson, Indiana was never able to go on one of its patented runs Friday afternoon. That, plus a high turnover rate and poor shooting from behind the arc (4-of-17 3FG), doomed the Big Ten champs. Tom Crean‘s bunch never went on a run of more than seven points, and was not able to take advantage of its fresh legs like the eighth-year head coach had hoped. “We weren’t as fast in the first half as we were in the second half, and that’s not how we play,” Crean said afterwards. While freshman OG Anunoby had another nice performance (13 points on 6-of-6 shooting), Yogi Ferrell – who seemed in utter command during the Hoosiers’ blowout win over Michigan in February – struggled to find nearly as many good looks against a much-improved Wolverines defense. Indiana’s own inability to cover Duncan Robison and Kameron Chatman on the game’s final two possessions ultimately sealed their fate. The good news? The Hoosiers should be a #3 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is published on Sunday, and will have plenty of time to rediscover the confident basketball that carried it through February.

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Who Is Michigan? Inside The Inconsistent Wolverines

Posted by Patrick Engel on February 10th, 2016

Michigan entered last week’s games against Indiana and Michigan State with confidence. The Wolverines were 7-2 in Big Ten play and winners of four straight. Six of those conference wins had come without All-Big Ten guard Caris LeVert. A week later, two blowout losses on its home floor leave Michigan with a lot of questions at a pivotal point in its season. Thought to be a sneaky Big Ten title contender and a near-lock for the NCAA tournament just a over a week ago, Michigan now sits in fourth place in the Big Ten standings. The Wolverines schedule doesn’t ease up, either; after a Wednesday road game at Minnesota, Michigan hosts Purdue before traveling to Ohio State and Maryland.

Michigan coach John Beilein and his team are searching for answers after blowout home losses to Indiana and Michigan State. (Lon Horwedel/AnnArbor.com)

Michigan coach John Beilein and his team are searching for answers after blowout home losses to Indiana and Michigan State. (Lon Horwedel/AnnArbor.com)

John Beilein’s offense is designed around the three-pointer. During most of his tenure in Ann Arbor, Michigan has possessed the shooters to make a high percentage of three-point attempts. This year is no exception: the team shoots 40.3 percent on three-pointers and has four players who shoot at least 45 percent from long-range. But the Wolverines have made only 24 of 87 (28%) three-point attempts over their last three games. Duncan Robinson, who has made 48 percent of his three-point attempts on the season, has made just 29.7 percent (14-47) in his last six games. In the Michigan State loss, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had three wide-open looks from three-point range and missed them all. Michigan can beat Penn State and Minnesota without hitting a lot of its threes, but against Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten’s best, they absolutely need those shots to fall.

Teams and players go through shooting slumps, but Michigan’s offensive struggles don’t feel like just another slump. Part of Michigan’s ability to make threes derives from its ability to find clean looks beyond the arc. Beilein’s offense involves a lot of ball movement and demands time to create such shots. In its two losses last week, Michigan didn’t move the ball well at all, assisting on only 40 percent of made field goals – a clip well under its 57 percent season average. The decline in assists per field goal made and the larger shooting struggles may be partially a product of an offense where the ball-handler is the only player moving. The result of the stagnation, at least of late, has been more predictable, easier-to-guard three-point attempts. Without LeVert, Michigan simply doesn’t have enough players who will consistently win in iso situations to make up for the lack of ball movement. It also doesn’t have a big man capable of producing offense with their back to the basket. Post-ups have never been a big component of Beilein’s offense, but they are a good weapon for offenses struggling to space the floor and find open shots. The lack of execution has created long scoring droughts, too: Indiana, for instance, ended the first half on a nine-minute, 25-0 run against the Wolverines.

Defensively, Michigan hasn’t been good either. Indiana and Michigan State averaged 1.16 and 1.29 points per possession in scoring 80 and 89 points against the Wolverines, respectively. The 70 and 73 points the Wolverines have scored in the two losses are also misleading, as Michigan struggled to score until each game’s final, meaningless minutes. Still, even after last week, Michigan is very much in the thick of the NCAA tournament discussion. Better yet for Wolverine fans, it’s clear that this team has the talent to start winning again, especially with LeVert’s impending return. But if the stagnant offense persists, Michigan could find itself spending another March at home.

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Levy’s Layup Line: Week 9

Posted by Adam Levy on January 29th, 2016

What a strange season it has been for the Big Ten this year. This is the most top-heavy Big Ten conference we’ve seen in quite some time, as evidenced by the insane blowout rate (victories by 20+ points). For as long as KenPom has been around, there has only been one season in which blowouts have occurred in more than 20 percent of games (2013). This season? 16 of 59 games have resulted in blowouts – good for 27.1 percent, the highest rate of any league in the country. So what the heck is going on? It’s Week 9 of the Layup Line.

REPORT CARD

A: Yogi Ferrell and Ethan Happ

Viewed as an afterthought in the wake of being destroyed by Duke back in December, the Indiana Hoosiers have engineered an incredible turnaround, in large part thanks to Yogi Ferrell. Since the start of Big Ten play, the senior point guard is averaging 20.3 points, 5.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 3.1 threes and shooting 55.6 percent from distance. He continues to put this team on his back when they need it most, hitting big shot after big shot and smoothly setting up teammates for easy looks. In fact, he’s done the latter so many times in his career that he became Indiana’s all-time assist leader last week. It’s clear that Ferrell is quite salty about being left off of the Midseason Top 25 Wooden Award List, and his performance in Madison was nothing short of incredible. If only his frontcourt could stop…

Yogi Ferrell Has Been Dynamic For The Hoosiers (USA Today Sports)

Yogi Ferrell Has Been Dynamic For The Hoosiers (USA Today Sports)

Ethan Happ, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for the second consecutive week. He completely had his way with Indiana’s bigs on Tuesday night, getting to the rim with ease and showing off great footwork and underrated quickness in the post. As of Monday, he ranked third in the conference with 8.1 rebounds per game and second with over two steals per game. From Brian Butch to Jon Leuer to Jared Berggren to Frank Kaminsky to Ethan Happ, the story of the unheralded Wisconsin big man never seems to end. Enjoy another three years of this kid, Badger fans.

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Big Ten M5: 01.22.15 Edition

Posted by Patrick Engel on January 22nd, 2016

morning5_bigten

  1. Former Boilermaker Robbie Hummel is out for the rest of the season after a mid-December labrum tear while playing overseas in Italy. Upon hearing of his injury, Purdue head coach Matt Painter quickly offered his former star player the chance to rehab at his alma mater and help the current Boilermakers squad as an adviser and mentor. He accepted the offer and will travel with the team and hang around the players as much as possible, while also living with Painter and rehabbing. Hummel considers it an internship of sorts to give him a taste of coaching as a post-playing career possibility.
  2. Michigan is holding its own without injured guard Caris LeVert, but John Beilein said Wednesday the senior is making “encouraging” progress with his lower left leg injury and is “doing more and more” on and off the court. The on-court work is still only light ball-handling and shooting, but he just recently has been able to walk without pain. Beilein said he still is not sure of a return date. In LeVert’s absence, Zak Irvin has found his shooting touch after a bad start: he has made 15 of his last 32 three-point attempts (47 percent).
  3. Rutgers hit a new low Monday, losing to Purdue at home by 50 and furthering the team’s perception as a colossal mess with no improvement in sight. But the school is launching a $100 million athletic facilities project called “R B1G Build,” a move designed to help improve the messy state of Rutgers athletics. The school released a video Wednesday that said athletic director Patrick Hobbs, head basketball coach Eddie Jordan and head football coach Chris Ash will each pledge $50,000 toward the effort. The video came a day after New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed a bill that will allow Rutgers to use $25 million in tax credits toward the project.
  4. Nebraska’s surprising 72-71 road win over Michigan State on Wednesday may say more about the reeling Spartans than the Cornhuskers, but it also revealed a Nebraska offense that has improved significantly from last season. Through seven conference games, Nebraska leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage, shooting 49 percent in conference play. Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star writes that the new freedom of movement rules have contributed to the more efficient offense. Shavon Shields scored 28 points in Wednesday’s win, but foul-prone Michigan State gave him plenty of space to score, perhaps in fear of fouling too much.
  5. Indiana is back in the top 25 and riding an 11-game winning streak, including five in a row to open Big Ten play. The team’s second-leading scorer, James Blackmon Jr., hasn’t played since Dec. 22 and will not play for the rest of the season due to injury. The Hoosiers’ hot streak has caused some fans and media to wonder if Indiana is better without Blackmon. The Indianapolis Star’s Zach Osterman considers the idea ridiculous. Instead, he asks the question, is Indiana better because it had to confront and deal with losing Blackmon? He points to its defensive improvement and determination to play better defense as a big reason why the answer is yes.
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Big Ten M5: 01.13.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 13th, 2016

morning5_bigten

  1. Northwestern kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive last night when the Wildcats edged Wisconsin at home, 70-65, its best win of the season so far. They were led by Bryant McIntosh, who scored 28 points, dished out five assists and is emerging as one of the best guards in the league. The sophomore is averaging 15.4 PPG (10th in B1G) and 7.2 APG (first) this year. As for Northwestern’s at-large prospects, the Wildcats have yet to register a win against another likely NCAA Tournament team, so there’s still work ahead. A win at College Park next Tuesday would be a great place to start.
  2. Michigan delivered Maryland its first conference loss of the season when the Wolverines squeaked out a 70-67 victory at home with star Caris Levert still sidelined by a leg injury. Zak Irvin stepped up in Levert’s absence by scoring 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. This game could represent a season turning point for the Wolverines, a team that had previously been blown out by elite competition. Michigan’s guards were able to stymie the Terrapins’ perimeter offense, as Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon combined to score only 10 points. If John Beilein can get his guys to play that level of defense for the rest of the season, the 3-1 team will become contenders for a Big Ten championship.
  3. On Monday, the Big Ten awarded Iowa‘s Mike Gesell its Player of the Week honors. The senior point guard registered the first double-double of his career in scoring 22 points and dishing 10 assists in a last week’s win over Nebraska. Gesell is playing the best basketball of his life right now — he is averaging 2.5 PPG and 3.0 APG more than last season while also improving his true shooting percentage by 11 percent. There’s no question that Jarrod Uthoff is Iowa’s most important player, but Gesell has emerged as the team’s Robin.
  4. Indiana‘s Thomas Bryant was awarded Freshman of the Week for the second time this season after dominating Ohio State’s frontcourt on Sunday — scoring 18 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the blowout win. Perhaps the biggest improvement the young center has made during the season is with his defense. During Indiana’s loss to Wake Forest at the Maui Invitational, Bryant was consistently exposed on the pick-and-roll by the Demon Deacons’ Devin Thomas. In Big Ten play, the young Hoosier has gotten better off those screens with the proof being his 93.1 defensive rating during conference games. Indiana’s defense, once thought to be a major liability hindering the team’s success, is now being anchored by one of its youngest players.
  5. One of the most perplexing results of the season to this point is Purdue’s disappointing Sunday loss to Illinois. The Boilermakers were not able to take advantage of the Illini’s thin frontcourt and their top-ranked defense allowed Illinois to shoot 52.9 percent from the three-point line. Juan Crespo from SBNation identifies part of the problem, which is that they don’t have a lineup of five players whom Matt Painter can completely trust. Painter may still need to work on different lineups to prevent some of the offensive stalls that still arise too frequently for the Boilermakers. He’ll have a chance to straighten things out on Thursday night against Penn State.
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Let’s Play Big Ten Secret Santa…

Posted by Patrick Engel (@PatrickEngel_) on December 25th, 2015

Your class, company, or family probably plays Secret Santa during the holidays. To get in the giving spirit this Christmas, we’ll play Secret Santa with the Big Ten’s 14 teams and coaches. As much fun as it would be to give Richard Pitino more hair gel or Tom Izzo some stilts, we’ll stick to practical basketball-related gifts that each Big Ten coach would be thrilled to unwrap.

Santa has a variety of interesting presents for Big Ten teams to unwrap

Santa has a variety of interesting presents for Big Ten teams to unwrap

Here are the gifts we gave each coach and team (in alphabetical order):

  • Illinois (John Groce): This is one of the easier teams to shop for: The injury bug has cursed Illinois, so it gets healthy players from Santa. The Fighting Illini are playing this season without their starting point guard (Tracy Abrams), power forward (Leron Black) and center (Mike Thorne, Jr.).
  • Indiana (Tom Crean): Another easy team to shop for. If you haven’t heard of Indiana’s horrific defensive efforts, you’ve been living under a rock. The Hoosiers gave up 70 points to Kennesaw State and 72 to Alcorn State, respectively. Those teams rank 322 and 349 in the KenPom ranks, and average 64.1 and 60.3 PPG, respectively. Crean needs to start thinking of new ways to get his players to play better defense. Santa gives him a “D-Fense” sign that he can throw at players after bad defensive efforts. Better loosen up your arm, Tom.
  • Iowa (Fran McCaffery): The Hawkeyes aren’t elite in any one area, but don’t have a lot of gaping holes. They do struggle to get to the foul line, with a 25.8 free throw rate, which ranks 337th in the nation, per KenPom. Santa gives Iowa more free throw chances, especially to Peter Jok. The junior wing is Iowa’s second-leading scorer, but has attempted just 23 free throws.
  • Maryland (Mark Turgeon): The one knock on the Terps has been turnovers. They turn it over on 20 percent of their possessions and have six players who turn the ball over at least 19 percent of their used possessions. Maryland finds sturdy handles under its tree this year.

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Big Ten M5: 12.07.15 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 7th, 2015

morning5_bigten

  1. Newcomers have made a huge impact this season for Ohio State. Freshmen have accounted for 37.9 percent of the team’s total minutes played and 29.4 percent of the team’s total scoring. One prominent freshman hasn’t yet made his way onto the court, though, as Mickey Mitchell is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA. Mitchell is allowed to practice, but the Buckeyes are “just sort of waiting it out,” according to coach Thad Matta. Ohio State is off to a disappointing 3-4 start, and they could definitely use the services of another wing to complement Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop.
  2. Better communication and a more focused effort were two keys in Indiana’s defensive improvement in their win Saturday against Morehead State. After getting embarrassed by Duke last Wednesday, the Hoosiers were able to force 23 turnovers in winning 92-59. The question going forward is whether the defensive uptick is sustainable. Indiana stuck mostly to man-to-man is this game, and the aggressiveness could be seen in the fact that the team logged 62 deflections. Everyone knows that this team can score at will when they don’t turn the ball over, but if they can get things clicking on the other end of the floor, they have a chance to become the team many expected when the season started.
  3. On a day when Purdue’s high-scoring offense wasn’t at its best, senior graduate transfer Johnny Hill made an impact off the bench in Saturday’s win over New Mexico. The guard scored 13 points, but his biggest impact came on the defensive end of the floor. He ended up with three steals, but also caused two turnovers in the second half that went a long way toward swinging the momentum in the favor of the Boilermakers. Hill lost his starting job to PJ Thompson, but much like Jon Octeus last season, has come in and been a difference maker thus far in the beginning stages of the season.
  4. Wisconsin put together a nice week in beating Syracuse on Wednesday and Temple on Saturday. The Badgers have four freshmen in their rotation, and each came through in different ways against the Owls. Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen both were key parts of a 19-2 run in the first half that put the Badgers up by 18 points. Ethan Happ and Khalil Iverson have both also had their moments as they get more comfortable. After not looking so great in losing to Oklahoma, the Badgers look to be improving as non-conference play is coming to an end. The improvement of the freshmen heading into Big Ten play will be crucial if the Badgers want to finish in the running for the conference title.
  5. With Derrick Walton Jr missing in action due to a sprained ankle, Spike Albrecht had to play a bit more than usual for Michigan on Saturday. The senior playmaker is still trying to get back to full strength after having hip surgery after last season. Albrecht is slowly rounding back into form, although it may take longer for him to return to the lineup. Both he and coach John Beilein are pointing to the start of Big Ten play as the marker. With Walton’s health always a concern, this would be a welcome development for the Wolverines.
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